Just back from a visit to Moulsford School - a boys' prep school in South Oxon with an idyllic riverside setting and a reputation for sporting excellence. Read my review here.
Moulsford School is a boy’s prep school with day, flexi or weekly boarding in South Oxfordshire, set in an idyllic 30 acre location by the river. At a time when former single sex schools are opening their doors to co-ed (mainly for financial reasons), Moulsford has created a niche for itself in priding itself on being boys-only experts, with the curriculum, sport, even the choice of teachers tailored towards them.
Like many schools I visit, Moulsford is a mix of the old and new, the original building a grand red brick Victorian mansion, with a lot of wood panelling and stained glass, and a grand dark wooden staircase that leads up to the boarding block. Sympathetic modern buildings house the classrooms for the 360 boys aged 4-13, of whom 41 are boarders.
Excellent and evolving. Sport is a BIG DEAL at Moulsford with 8 cricket pitches, 12 sets of cricket nets, one large hockey pitch on the astro (which can be divided into two small pitches), 4 tennis courts, up to 12 football/rugby pitches and a massive indoor gym that’s marked up for tennis, badminton and basketball with an indoor climbing wall to boot (not to mention a natty mezzanine with views over the river). There’s a 15 metre outdoor swimming pool, and tentative plans now for another astro.
You’ll find plenty of prep schools with that kind of sports roll call, but not many of them have this kind of view or access to the river.
The school, unsurprisingly, offers comprehensive water sports including kayaking, canoeing and even dinghy sailing where kids can go up to ‘Goose Poo Island’ for the full Swallows & Amazons experience. Paddleboarding has gone berserk here and the school has just bought a further 12 boards (you might catch headmaster Ben Beardmore Gray on the river in the early evening too). Moulford has recently bought 8 new ergos and are exploring rowing as an option – they’re currently are applying for planning permission for a rowing pontoon.
Drama-wise, the main school hall is small but well-appointed with all the theatre lighting and pull-out tiered seating you’d expect. All kids get the opportunity to perform or be involved in a drama production each year, drama courses run in holidays and children in certain years being offered an introduction to film production. 10% of kids here go through LAMDA exams.
On the technology front, there’s a swanky ICT suite, with all boys Y4-8 given their own ipad to use in relevant classes.
In the last few years there’s been a concerted effort to move away from the perception of Moulsford as sport-focused, with much energy put into the arts. Here the dedicated music space is still relatively small, but even so 65% of senior boys choose to learn instrument at Moulsford (that’s on the higher side of what I experience going round schools) and because there are no girls around, it’s not regarded sissy to play more ‘girly’ instruments like the flute or to join the orchestra or choir. The performing arts are being taken seriously – in 2017 the school introduced its inaugural dedicated summer music concert on the front lawn and it’s now the second most important event of the school calendar, after prize giving.
Two years back Moulsford initiated a radically new Activities Programme from Reception to Year 8. I’m a big fan of the way it’s successfully unlocked potential and opened the pupils’ eyes to having a go at things they wouldn’t ordinarily attempt.
Basically, every half term the boys can choose an activity every day (45 – 60 mins, depending on age), anything from music theory, fencing, dance and gymnastics, to rugby fit, kayaking, sewing and night running. For pre-prep, it’s the likes of music and movement, golf, balance biking (great idea), drama, mindful drawing and board games.
BUT the boys have to have to tick boxes for healthy living, performance and the arts, self-development, community service and adventure, which means that a sports nut can’t just do sport, he has to try, say, public speaking. Conversely the music prodigy has to step out of his comfort zone and try dance. Only by showing they’ve tried hard to master a new skill will they be in the running to win the Moulsford Award. Such a great initiative – I know with my own kids how hard it is to get them to step out of their comfort zone so to reward the effort is super-smart.
Moulsford isn’t overtly academic in its selection process (the school is over-subscribed and the school looks actively at ‘all round’ abilities) and in fact, 45 children of its children have 1:1 learning support, mostly for dyslexia/dyspraxia.
Interestingly Moulsford was one of the first schools to opt out of working toward the Common Entrance exam (seen by many as a rote learning machine – discuss!) and design its own curriculum on its own pre-testing for next schools. You may feel strongly one way or the other about this but the results are undeniably strong. In 2019, at 13+, three boys gained Awards to Abingdon, three to Radley, two to Magdalen College School, two to Cokethorpe, one to Bradfield, one to Wellington, one to St Edward’s Oxford, and one to The Oratory, all across a range of academic, sports, music, art, DT and Drama. Moulsford boys also regularly progress to the likes of Marlborough, Eton, Harrow, Stowe, Shiplake and Pangbourne.
Ben Beardmore-Gray has been at the helm here for five years, and has pretty much overhauled the school in that time. Married with three kids, he’s affable, smart, blazered up, and more English than a mid-afternoon cream tea. Wife Sarah is a smart cookie, overseeing the marketing, along with more practical aspects like dorm decor and, most recently, the new school uniform – checked shirts, blue jumpers and generally less grey.
Moulsford’s biggest quirk is fast becoming its single sex status – so many day prep schools are becoming co-ed (The Manor, Cranford House, Rupert House, Elstree). But Moulsford’s strength is not really about quirkiness – I think parents probably choose this school because it’s the quintessential English prep school, big on sport, academics, the arts, and manners, though any school that sends children sailing off to a place legitimately called Goose Poo Island has me on side.
No school can ignore the pressures now enveloping children and Moulsford is taking it seriously. For starters, one of the school’s two deputy heads has the sole task of providing pastoral care for the kids. Over the last year Moulsford has also upped the hours for the school counsellor, and AS tracking continues to help identify pupils who are at a hidden risk of developing social and emotional difficulties. Twenty staff have been trained in mindfulness to teach the boys to slow down and reflect (as a day school primarily the pace is fast here) and school lunch break has been extended to 70 minutes.
Finally – and I’m sure most parents will be thrilled to read this – mobile phone use is prohibited for day schoolers and flexi boarders, and weekly boarders are allowed only 30 minutes per night.
WRAP AROUND CARE
Nearly all Moulsford’s kids come from a 20k radius of the school, nearly all boarders are local too – either kids who want to do a couple of days a week for fun or older children who are getting in the zone for the time when they board at Senior School. The dorms were refurbed two years ago with new carpets, repainting, blinds, curtains, and a cosy common room area.
There are 36 beds and priority goes to weekly boarders (Mon – Fri, there’s no Saturday school), but it’s possible to board on single pre-booked nights too. In terms of after-school care, all children can stay until 5.45pm for prep or activities, and if the school is notified first thing in the morning, children can also stay for supper and play until 8pm. In holidays, there are week long (paid for) courses put on for the kids in sport, art, drama, music etc.
Pre-prep day fees start at £3995, rising to £5910 per term for Prep day fees. With boarding the termly fees £7395, so I’d say the fees are broadly average.
WORD ON THE GROUND
The mums I spoke to are extremely pro Moulsford and like the head and the changes he continues to implement. Music and drama provision have improved though sport is still the standard bearer. That said, previous moans about lack of involvement for lower teams down the pecking order have largely gone with a much more inclusive ‘sport for all’ philosophy. The introduction of a new school uniform over the last term has rankled some parents, mostly on a hassle and cost basis, though the kids I met love it – apparently, it’s way more warm and comfortable!
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Boys with energy to burn, who thrive on an outdoorsy, idyllic Swallows & Amazons-style school. Sporty kids will love it here, but the head is eager to promote an all-rounder ethos and the arts are far from ignored here. Discipline is strong and manners are drilled in with military precision – the boys I met were incredibly polite and assured.
Not for: Vehemently non-competitive kids may not enjoy the give-it-a-go attitude at Moulsford.
Dare to disagree? Don’t take my word for it! Have a look for yourself at the Open Day on Fri 20 and Sat 21 Sept, or book an individual tour with the Headmaster during term-time throughout the year. In the meantime you can get the official promo flavour of the school here or contact the registrar Jill Morrin for further info email@example.com.
Moulsford School, Moulsford-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, OX10 9HR. Tel: 01491 651438. moulsford.com